Dot Major: Creating with too much harmony

Throughout his career with the English indie pop band London Grammar, Dot Major’s love for underground dance music has been an informing factor in the group’s sound and his long-running and — until now — private solo music. In co-founding the group while studying at university in Nottingham, alongside vocalist Hannah Reid and bandmate Dan Rothman, Dot Major drew from his Guildhall training in classical piano and his passion for electronic music to assume the role of multi-instrumentalist.

Moving between modular hardware, keys and drums, he experimented with organic instrumentation and computer-centric beats, warping studio and live techniques to help create the group’s tender-yet-punchy sound.. And as the band shot to stardom, Dot Major started collecting modular synths to develop his solo material. Girts Ozolins talks synths, bands and cars with Dot Major.

- How did you get into music in the first place?

Dot Major: My parents are very musical. My dad was always in bands when I was growing up, but he wasn't a professional musician. I'm originally from Northampton, which is a quiet business town in the Midlands in England. I remember going to see my dad play when I was a kid; he would play guitar and sing in a band. He was always very encouraging of my brother and me to play. It's something he always supported— he was never quick to buy us things like Nintendo or Playstation, but if we were working on music, he'd always get us the proper equipment. As a kid, I played 'drums' on pots, pans, and chairs. After I showed commitment, he would then get me a drum kit.

- So your parents are an inspiration for you?

Dot Major: Yeah, for sure. I mean, they are definitely the reason I do it.

- Do you remember your first public appearances as a musician?

Dot Major: I was classically trained. I trained in piano and drums quite a lot. But there's obviously a vast difference between being a solo player and playing with other people. After I achieved my grade eight, my dad told me that just playing your grades doesn't make you good— you need to play with other people. I remember going to a rehearsal, and there was an opening for a band in Northampton, a pop-punk band called Action Jackson. They put a flyer on MySpace saying there's a position open for auditioning. So I went down, I was 13. I took my whole drum kit with me to the rehearsal room, which is pretty embarrassing thinking back at it. The guys in my band were my age. We started playing in a lot of pubs and stuff. I was quite a late bloomer, and because I looked so young, they'd always draw a little cross on my hand because obviously, I couldn't be drinking. Everyone was asking, "Why? Why are you in the pub?" I think I might have even got kicked out once or twice.

- When you are classically trained, are you forced to participate in contests between schools and so on? At least that was the case for my daughter when she was studying in music school. Was that something you had to do as well?

Dot Major: Yeah, it's quite interesting. There's a lot of the idea of competition, which is kind of at odds with how I really feel about music now. I think from playing so much as a kid, the idea of competition was always kind of ingrained in me. Even when we were doing our band thing, it would be like we were in a battle with the other bands. I think that's something that's very different now. It's taken me a long time to remove the idea of competition from music. When I go into any session to work with different people from the industry, I never think about who's better at music—it's such a ridiculous concept.

- Yes, but ultimately, when it comes to music as a business, there still is a case of competition and a heavy one, especially with Spotify, and bands popping up on every corner.

Dot Major: Yeah, competition for success, for sure. The numbers are the validation of what you're doing. But I think in terms of the creation process, some musicians still think of it that way. Some really successful ones do, but I think it's not really how I try to approach it.


- But let's talk about you as an individual performer. I have a feeling, and maybe it's not quantitatively justified, that bands are actually fading out?

Dot Major: I think it's a fair point. If you think of the '80s, the '70s, and even into the '90s—when I was a kid, the idea of drummers like Stewart Copeland, Ian Paice, John Bonham, I would always know the names of these guys in bands. I think it was really romanticized to be a member of a band. Now, the session players are so good. I'm never gonna compete in terms of technical ability with the guys who are playing at the top level. I think the romanticization of bands has maybe been slightly lost. In some countries, I feel like there's still more of the idea of the concept of bands, and I think there's something really special about being in a band. You go through so much together; it's kind of fascinating if you think about it. We met at a university, so our entire adult life has been really defined by each other in a strange way. Individually, it's a slightly different thing. I'm still figuring things out in terms of performance; I'm still figuring out exactly what I'm gonna do with electronic music, for example. I have done shows, Print Works before it shut down. And it was in between many DJs, a big show. It was my first DJ show in a few years, so I knew I wasn't ever gonna be on the level that the other DJs were in terms of DJing. I had an OB-6 and the LXR-02 with me on the stage—I thought, what I can do as a player is to introduce more performative aspects into the DJing setup. But I also have this thought about electronic music—there are so many people right now in electronic music trying to make it a full live show. To me, it's like if I made this music on a laptop, why should I perform it on a piano? If I made it on a piano, I wouldn't perform it on a laptop. I think there's too much focus on people thinking that it is more credible to play in a live context as opposed to DJing. Most of the DJs that I love, I would much rather see them DJ than do a live show.

- But it's also related to technology. Back in the '80s, there were no proper drum machines; you could not replace a real-life drummer. And, of course, it's arguable if you can do it nowadays, but I saw Jeff Mills playing with his jazz band, and sometimes you cannot tell the difference that it's actually TR-909 and not a live drummer. He's such a genius and has mastered the instrument so well.

Dot Major: That is a key aspect. When the TR-808 came out, it was really heavily criticized because it didn't sound anything like a drum kit. A lot of synthesizers back in the day were designed to be synthesized versions of real-life instruments. And that's a thing that, I guess, changed over time, which is that people started using these instruments as new technology, rather than trying to use them to replace something that already existed. It's very obvious when I'm using drum machines that I want them to sound like drum machines; I don't want them to sound like a drum kit. If I wanted it to sound like a drum kit, I would play my drum kit.

- When it comes to London Grammar, how do you agree on what kind of gear is being used in your setup? What shapes your decisions on what kind of technology is behind the sound?

Dot Major: I think fundamentally I would describe us as a studio band in the sense that we don't really write music in advance. In a situation where we have all of this gear and we're almost like bands that are in band practice, practicing their riffs, and by the time they go into the studio, it's just time to lay it down. And they're quite tight already. With us, it's the other way around, where we just make these tunes, which also is the difference of why bands aren't the same anymore. We make our music in the studio, and then when it comes to what gear we have playing live, it's really a case of what can we use to replicate that which was in the studio. For my live setup, I have a Moog Subsequent 37 and a Sequential Prophet 6. I basically remake all of the patches that are poly on the Prophet and all of the mono patches on the Sub 37. I have so many synths, and I end up asking myself—why? All these patches really sound the same (laughing - ed.) For me, the difference in having all these synths is more about the process. It's always been about the process for me. I'm not someone who's really fussed about whether something is digital or analog; it's just the case of the usability, the fun of using it. If I'm having fun while I'm making music, I'm gonna make more music. Being on a laptop screen and using a mouse to change a cutoff filter—I don't enjoy that. But then I don't have any problem using plugins. I'm certainly not a purist in that sense. I know some people are more fussed about where things come from.

- So basically, hardware synthesizers are part of your musical inspiration, right?

Dot Major: Yeah, definitely. Quite often, I might decide to fire up the SYNTRX, just that and then see what happens, play around, and then the playing around will quickly become a recording. I just really enjoy it. That's why I got into modular synthesizers—because, especially as someone who was classically trained, I wanted to have less control about what I'm doing and understand less of what I'm doing. I might just get something from a modular synth that is something I would never have come up with otherwise. I would use that, and then I can play my piano or whatever it is on top. I do want things to be quite easy to use; for example, with the Pērkons HD-01, I just find it so simple.

- If a person scrolls through your Instagram feed, it looks like you also appreciate the aesthetic look of synthesizers.

Dot Major: Definitely. I think there's something really fashionable about synthesizers. And so do you guys—I can tell by the stuff you make. I've always been drawn towards companies that actually appreciate aesthetics—maybe it sounds a bit ridiculous, but I'm the same with cars. Aesthetics are a part of how I think about everything. If I'm looking at something that looks amazing, and the build quality is amazing, I'm more likely to want to stick around. Moog has always done that historically; they have always had really beautiful looking things. I don't know why it's such a big thing for me, but for sure, I really do appreciate that.

- If you have to choose a favorite car, what is your go-to?

Dot Major: Ferrari 458 Spider at the moment. I think I'm going to get a vintage one in the next couple of years. Because again, I feel myself being drawn into the vintage world; cars are very similar to synths—I want the vintage stuff. But then also the usability can be such a nightmare. I had an Oberheim before which I recently sold because I got the reissue and the reissue is so good. I thought I basically have the other one because it looks great. And that's not enough. I think there are certain companies, you guys being one and also Teenage Engineering, who have a way of making truly new things while certainly being into aesthetics as well. I've got a bunch of vintage stuff, but I really don't want to have too much—if my studio is 80% new stuff and 20% vintage synths, then I'm happy. I mean, if you had one of those studios where it's just all vintage stuff, it's just crazy—you're always fixing stuff. I don't want a studio where things are always broken; it's just very frustrating.

- Basically, can you take any synthesizer and replicate the sound on the Prophet 6?

Dot Major: I can get pretty close. I mean, having said that, it is still different, but if there is a slight discrepancy between the Prophet sound and what I did on a Jupiter 8, then it's fine. For example, the first song I released called "Bear", the bass was from an ARP 2600—I wouldn't replicate that on something else because it's so fundamental to the tune. The whole sound is basically just the 2600 beginning sequence. When it really sounds very obviously like a particular synth, I wouldn't want to try to make that on something else.

- How many musical personalities do you have? There is London Grammar, your solo performances. Is there anything else you do in the context of music?

Dot Major: I do a lot of writing and production with other people. And that can be in the context of producing something for them or helping them write and produce something. Working on my own music at the moment is very open-ended. I enjoy going into different sessions, in different capacities. So it could be to put a beat on something or it could be to help with something else. I really enjoy the different ways of working; it keeps it really exciting, I think.

- What's your creative process when you compose a new track, both for you personally and for London Grammar?

Dot Major: It really, really depends. It changes a lot. Quite often, it will just be going to and writing in our studio, but actually, a lot of the ideas, more freeform ideas genuinely come to me when I'm not in the studio. My iPhone voice notes are full of hundreds of audio notes of really hilarious unlistenable stuff. And mainly just me sort of singing random ideas. If you're writing electronic music, and this is funny, something that John Hopkins said in an interview—sometimes if you're writing electronic music, you go into the studio thinking you want to make this idea that's actually very hard to accomplish. I think with club music, with electronic music, so much more than with other genres, you have to give into the flow of what's happening. It depends; I've been doing quite a lot of remixing recently, and then I'll generally loop around the vocal or maybe see a piano and figure out the harmony of where I want to go first. But then with club music, sometimes harmony can be quite limiting; I always tend to make things with too much harmony while some of the best club music has always been atonal. That's something that has taken me a long time to balance—to keep some of the beauty and emotion in what I'm trying to do but also make it work in a club context. It is quite a difficult thing to accomplish.


- You mentioned earlier that essentially your entire adult life has been spent with a band. What's the interaction like during the creative process among the members? Who takes the lead, and what contributions do each member make?

Dot Major: Again, it really depends. Quite often, Hannah might come with a song that's more fully formed, and then we will arrange it in the studio and produce it as a band. Dan and I might have written a piece of music, and we have a Logic project, which then serves as more of a top line. It's not always in threes; Dan and Hannah might write something together, and then I'll come in on the production side. When you're three people, the temptation is always to stay as a trio, but breaking up into pairs and working individually has been really fruitful for us.

- When I spoke with Martin Gore, he mentioned that they (Depeche Mode - ed.) work individually on their ideas and then come together in the studio with fully developed concepts, which are then further developed by engineers.

Dot Major: That's quite common, I think.

- What was your first major commercial success?

Dot Major: It was definitely with London Grammar. Before that, I had been in a lot of bands that sort of just hit around. Actually, when we first met at university, I had almost sort of... well, not given up, but I wasn't obsessed with the idea of having to make it as a musician. It was quite liberating. Just being in this band, we would drive down to London and start doing shows, and we got signed off the back of an acoustic video we did in 2010. Then, we released our first song - "Hey Now," in December 2012, and it immediately went really well. We were playing to 300 people in the UK at the time, and then we went over to Australia, where there were 12,000 people in our show. Suddenly, it really kicked off.

I think from there, our first album had a lot of commercial success. It was one of the last albums that was really selling a lot of physical copies. We achieved double platinum, and it set us up really nicely. It felt quite quick; it's one of those things people describe as an overnight success, but obviously, we'd been behind closed doors for two years making the album, which is quite rare now. We managed to get signed and make an album. I don't think record labels really sign artists anymore. It wasn't common to sign artists who aren't already in the publicly known space. That was a really old-school way to sign a band based on what their music sounds like and only then develop them behind closed doors, pay for them to be in the studio.

We had a lot of learning to do in the two years that we were in the studio; we didn't really know how to produce certain things. We were working with Rollo Armstrong, with whom we made the whole album, and I remember he said to us, "This isn't the right album. You guys need to make your own music."

- What are your musical inspirations?

Dot Major: I have many. When I was a kid, I was very into classical music. I love Chopin and Debussy—essentially classical romantic composers. I'm big into film soundtracks, especially the music of Jóhann Jóhannsson, who sadly passed away. Film soundtracks have changed quite a lot over the years. They used to be like songs, and if you think of John Williams, they're really scores that could have been written by Gershwin or any classical composers. Whereas now, they're much more into the dark electronic world. So, I really appreciate Jóhann Jóhannsson for managing to marry those two things. But then also rock and obviously electronic music; it's quite a wide array of sounds that I'm into.

- What is your approach to the changes in the music industry nowadays, with so much attention on streaming and social media?

Dot Major: I think it's really interesting. I am certainly never grumpy about the way it's changed. Technology changes us and the way the world is. It's always a case of evolve or die, really. I would never say that I was resentful over the way something changed. One thing is that I think it's really difficult for new artists. I think when we started as a band, we basically could get on. We were on Radio 1 a lot. In England, if you get on Radio 1, you're basically known - that was it. That was how easy it was. Whereas now, the attention span of people is so much wider. For example, Ross from Friends - an electronic artist who I love, had an album come out a year ago, and I didn't even know it had come out. And I'm one of his biggest fans. There's so much competition for attention. It's really hard to harvest that attention. Everyone is scrambling for attention. But there's a lot of opportunity. And one thing I really love about it is that as an artist, you can see into what other people do and the background of it all, like me posting the videos of me jamming.

- What do you think is the next big thing in electronic music?

Dot Major: I think electronic music is becoming more specific, which is not something that I like. You're either doing something like Charlotte De Witte or Amelie Lens, hard techno, or you're doing melodic techno, or you're doing whatever else. I feel like there are these streams that have huge commercial success, and people feel like they need to move more into these areas to achieve commercial success. Hopefully, that will change a bit because the thing that I've always loved about electronic music is the originality in it. That's what always drew me to it in the first place. The conflation between technology and originality is very certain. Aphex Twin wasn't the most original musician in the world just because; it was also because he was around at the time where the technology allowed him to be that way. So, what I find really exciting is the way people can use certain instruments and be really original.

- Where do you see yourself in a 5-10 year perspective?

Dot Major: I'd like to develop a live show based on decks, both vinyl and CDJs, with various instruments around, perhaps even a drum kit. Not a full live show, but I want to be fluid in translating my ideas into electronic music while maintaining their heaviness, which can sometimes get lost in live performances.

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